Severance and Sub-Creation
In what would have been called in an earlier period of TV development “the pilot” of Apple TV+’s series Severance, Mark (Adam Scott) attends a dinner party populated by the most obnoxious people in any possible world—members of the professional class chattering about various online thinkpieces. Amidst their debates, the attendees learn of Mark’s high-concept job at Lumon Industries, where only employees who have had their work and non-work selves surgically divided—employees who have no knowledge of their work lives when they’re at home and vice versa—may labor on the company’s secretive “severed floor.” Immediately, he is questioned about the ethical, logistical, psychological and existential ramifications of this extreme answer to the work–life balance problem. The look of weary resignation on Mark’s booze-ravaged face relays his objection: how is it acceptable that my life is fodder for your chat? (Scott here once again plays a job-haunted alcoholic depressive with innate personal charisma, although in a different register than in the Starz sitcom Party Down [2009–2010].)
At first, it is tempting to think of the party’s attendees (who return in the season’s final two episodes) only as a particularly vicious satire of the thinkpiece-enraptured. However, Severance, as a water cooler show for a post-water cooler world, needs to justify its Apple-funded existence by generating brain-fucks at a relatively stable rate. Thus, the show, which was created by Dan Erickson, repeatedly prompts its audience to contemplate the very questions Mark’s dinner party companions pose. Impressively, it manages to do so without too much viewer hand-holding. It does not open with a scroll, its characters do not speak in info dumps and its narrative is not a Candide-like introduction to a world. Severance doles out context slowly, allowing its audience to (re)draft their map of the territory as they encounter it. This kind of cognitive estrangement, requiring audience labor, was the norm in adult science fiction across various entertainment industries before the genre encountered the Outside Context Problem of YA. While SF has always moved fluidly between age-bracketed buckets, the YA (young adult) marketing category emerged in the 1960s, thriving on, according to The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, “genre fusion… rather than genre purity,” with an emphasis on first-person POV and “interpersonal relationships.” This is a polite way of saying “soap opera,” which is an impolite way of saying “drama.” The success of The Hunger Games (2008) hardened these emphases into an affect which, combined with the tastes of a generation reared on fan fiction, dictates the current literary marketplace of the genre. What sets Severance even further apart in this marketplace is that, instead of congratulating its audience for engaging in cognitive labor, it interrogates their desire to consume other people’s drama, whether in the real or built world.
Usually, this kind of SF invokes the dread specter of “world-building,” a term which refers to making clear the construction of the undergirding imaginary in which the story takes place. Strictly speaking, Severance’s creators do not world-build. In the show, there is no COVID pandemic (though this is the norm for contemporary television), and the social and political effects of the vaguely cultish corporate entity of Lumon reverberate on a minor scale. Otherwise, Severance’s world is ours.
Lumon’s severed floor is not. The severing process untethers the employee completely from the outside world’s influence, then places them in a cloistered environment that comes complete with its own rules, history, logic and goals. The rules are made clear to the newly severed employee (and thus to the audience). The logic has a deeper grammar, though—one the employee internalizes without fully understanding. This explains the popularity of the show: isn’t all corporate life conducted by those who have internalized a logic they cannot fully explain? The severed floor’s history remains a faintly menacing, just-out-of-reach amalgamation of rumors, lies, sanctioned lore and guesswork. Its goals remain, at the close of the first season, unknown.
In Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation (2012), Mark J.P. Wolf offers a concise example of world-building through a close reading of the Robert Heinlein sentence fragment “the door dilated,” found in his novel Beyond This Horizon. Heinlein suggests, in three words, “not only a different architecture and technology, but also a society technologically advanced to the point where such doors are possible.” Wolf then teases out the implications of these three words. They are myriad.
The progenitor of world-building as a codified technique rather than merely an impulse is J.R.R. Tolkien, whose prose set on Arda, where Middle-Earth has its existence, is pockmarked by poetry, song info-dumps avant la lettre and vast appendices, many of which are now being strip-mined for Amazon’s upcoming TV show The Rings of Power. Tolkien’s volumes’ immense swathes of historical time and intricately detailed social structures deeply influenced generations of SF readers and writers, providing a presumed gold standard for authenticity in the creation of a secondary world, which the Encyclopedia of Fantasy defines as an “autonomous world or venue which is not bound to mundane reality… and which is self-coherent as a venue for story.” (As academic Ben Robertson has noted, world-building, with its anxieties about “coherence & consistency,” signposts SF’s lineage from literary realism.)
In his 1947 essay “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien writes, “[F]airy-stories are not in normal English usage stories about fairies or elves, but stories about Fairy, that is Faerie, the realm or state within which fairies have their being.” Stories merely about fairies, Tolkien suggests correctly, are boring. Tolkien is careful to refer to the process of constructing secondary worlds as sub-creation, to best distinguish, in a Catholic manner, its hierarchical nature. (God creates man, man creates elves, etc.) The secular arrogance of world-building would come post-Tolkien, although there is no consensus regarding even its approximate origin. (Unfortunately, Philip K. Dick’s use of both “world building” and “world-building” in his 1953 short story “The Trouble with Bubbles” seems to be a red herring.) A not-even-remotely authoritative search of Google Books has the term showing up with recurring frequency in the mid-to-late 1970s, in such specialist titles as Writing and Selling Science Fiction (1976) and Science Fiction Voices 2 (1979), as well as George Edgar Slusser’s more academic The Delany Intersection (1977). Critic and co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction John Clute suggests that “world-building in traditional hard SF—like Hal Clement—almost went without saying, like good grammar” and thus did not necessitate a neologism.
In the first two decades of the new millennium, the term became an industry standard and mainstay of mainstream storytelling. It seems to have reached an inflection point in 2010, with the word’s n-grams beginning a spike that would more than double by 2014. During this period, SF fandom, virulently infected by YA, increasingly demanded comforting and immersive illusions of escape. The most successful secondary worlds, at least going back to Tolkien, have acted as both escape hatches from reality and also loci for community formation. Simultaneously, multimedia franchises (roughly, from LotR to Harry Potter to MCU) became Hollywood’s latest financial cornerstone. These vast corporate secondary worlds required new ways of conceptualization and management, both of which the practice of world-building offered. You are now as likely to see the term in a New York Times review of contemporary literary fiction (whatever that is) or hear it in a streaming pitch meeting as you are to read it on a specialist blog.
Responses to this dominance have varied. In 2011, SF author Charles Stross proposed world-building as “the primary distinguishing characteristic of SF and fantasy (at least at a superficial level),” only to suggest less than seven years later that it was increasingly being executed incorrectly. Author and critic M. John Harrison, in his 2007 blog post “very afraid,” designated world-building as an “attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there” and coined the useful phrase “the great clomping foot of nerdism.” Harrison’s Viriconium sequence (1971 to 1984) is a direct response to post-Tolkien fantasy: the history, geography, physics and characters of its titular city are constantly shifting. Harrison’s objection to the aforementioned “coherence & consistency” can be seen as primarily political. Others view world-building as a more politically flexible tool. Academic Leif Sorensen offers N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy as an example of an emerging trend of SF authors of color focusing on rebuilding worlds that have experienced radical breaks from the previous order. It is possible to see this evolving rhetorical situation as an outgrowth of a generation-spanning dispute over escapism in SF, which (surprise!) goes back to Tolkien. In a 2002 piece in the Socialist Review, SF author China Miéville countered a quotation C.S. Lewis attributed to his fellow Inkling regarding “jailers” as the “class of men… most preoccupied with, and hostile to, the idea of escape” with this Michael Moorcock quotation: “Jailers love escapism. What they hate is escape.”
While Severance is not set in a secondary world, Lumon’s corporate creators are engaged in the act of an ongoing heretical IRL sub-creation. (Severance’s creators create Lumon, Lumon creates the severed floor, etc.) Severance, thus, is about the concerns of those who find themselves in a built world: what it feels like to be subject to such deeply structured control, whether it be corporate, political or authorial. The irony that such content is being offered by the streaming subdivision of a company whose name once stood as shorthand, along with “Foxconn,” for insidious mistreatment of workers has been blunted by the past decade’s obsessive refocus on domestic production and labor, allowing Amazon to assume the role, for the time being, of primary corporate bête noire.
Despite its bleak view of the professional world and deep vein of personal sadness, Severance is a hopeful show. It believes that human beings are ultimately driven to escape, not into the comforting simplicity of secondary worlds, but out of the built worlds that have been imposed upon them. This hopefulness, whether it is an organic extension of the show’s creators’ worldviews or not, is a necessary prerequisite in the current corporate climate. The streaming industry’s prevailing logic, backed by copious metadata, indicates that audiences have an insatiable desire for such comforting simplicity. At the same time, a worldview centered around the triumph of the human spirit seems, in the current political climate, almost nostalgically quaint. Contemporary history suggests the class of person perhaps even more hostile to the idea of escape than the jailer is the jailed.